Chrome and Adblocking

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This week, Chrome began enforcing its new ad blocking technology. While this is likely to be a net good, there is inherent complexity with a single company that is the largest digital advertising company, the largest browser company, and one of the largest digital publishers enforcing these standards. The particular ads that are being blocked are those defined by the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) - specifically, the CBA released the Better Ads Standards (BAS). The BAS excludes a defined set of ad attributes "that rank lowest across a range of user experience factors, and that are most highly correlated with an increased propensity for consumers to adopt ad blockers." These are:

On desktop web:

  • Popup ads - including both new windows and ad elements of the page that hover over content, and both with and without countdown timers
  • Autoplay video with sound on by default - interestingly this defers the decision as to whether pre-roll and mid-roll ads will be allowed. It is noteworthy that auto-play video that moves content was not considered to be a format that would be filtered
  • Prestitial ads with count-down timers - this format was made most famous by Forbes. Chrome does, however allow prestitial ads that can be dismissed immediately, and, predictably, Forbes switched to this format overnight
  • Large sticky ads - these are ads that are more than 30% of the screen and remain fixed at the bottom regardless of a user's efforts to scroll

On mobile web:

  • Same as desktop: popup ads, autoplay video with sound on by default, prestitial ads, and large sticky ads
  • Full-screen scroll-over ads - these are ads that float in over the content and stop the natural scroll behavior of the page
  • Flashing animated ads - these are ads that animate with rapidly changing background, text or colors. It is noteworthy and perhaps confusing that these were blocked only on mobile web and not desktop
  • Poststial ads with countdown - these are ads that will appear after a user clicks on a link, making them wait and watch an ad before they can follow a link. 
  • Ad density above 30% - this is somewhat nuanced, but it's meant to determine whether the height of the total content of the ads is more than 30% of the overall content height on a page (excluding non-content stuff like headers and footers, excluding ads that aren't in the main content, and excluding pre-rolls for video content). This does not directly restrict the height of a given ad outside of the 30% of total content restriction. 

These changes have the potential to change entire companies overnight. For example, the company Parsec used to run full-screen scroll-over ads but when it realized these would be banned by Chrome, they had to change much of their business overnight. Other companies are still in the balance, for example the pop-up advertising exclusion deferred on the decision about whether to block exit-based popups. Should they do so, it will effectively end Bounce Exchange's business. Similarly, should they decide to block pre-roll and mid-roll advertising, many of the largest video SSPs will lose over half of their revenue oversight. 

The premise behind the CBA's research is that users largely understand that publishers need to advertise to monetize, however they will tolerate only so much annoying, intrusive advertising until they install an ad-blocker, which blocks all advertising, including more user-centric varieties. By ensuring that all advertising stays below the consumer tolerance threshold, Chrome / Google hope that fewer users will install ad blockers and it will benefit the overall online publishing ecosystem. That said, it is important to understand what exactly the CBA's research was. While the ad formats highlighted are indeed annoying, the CBA is meant to be an independent trade body that would work with its members to decide which ads met consumer acceptability thresholds. In reality, the data that the CBA used was almost exclusively Google's, with the names of Google employees removed from the CBA report, allowing Google to separate itself from its own conclusions. This is important especially from a competitive standpoint where Google is facing European antitrust actions around certain advertising practices. Indeed, regarding Chrome ad blocking, Margrethe Vestager said her organization, the European Commissioner for Competition,  "will follow this new feature and its effects closely."  Google's role as judge and jury here should rightfully be scrutinized. For example, one might wonder whether pre-roll advertising would be considered more annoying and be blocked if Google didn't also own YouTube. 

It is important to distinguish the CBA program from the Acceptable Ads program. The latter is run by Eyeo, the entity behind Adblock Plus, and focuses on creating standards defining the set of ads that could circumvent Adblock Plus if the publisher or vendor paid a significant fee to Eyeo. The Acceptable Ads program is most noteworthy because Google, Amazon, Taboola, Outbrain and Criteo all participate to some degree - and because outside of this group, it has not attracted participation from top tier advertising technology companies. The CBA, on the other hand, was initially formed by companies including P&G, GroupM, Facebook, the Washington Post and Google - in large part to create a post-adblock web. Also worth noting is that Microsoft is a member of the CBA, but has indicated that it does not currently expect to implement a similar ad filtering technology. 

Chrome will implement the blocks on a page level, not an ad or ad type level - meaning once a site has been found to violate the Better Ads Standards, all ads on that site will be blocked, including those that meet the Better Ads Standards. This means the onus is being placed on publishers to moderate their advertising strategies, as opposed to technology companies, because the entirety of their monetization via Chrome is at risk. The majority of the experiences blocked by Chrome are tied to formats that publishers can implement as opposed to ad content that might come via ad platforms like AdX, which aligns with the expected publisher role here. That said, the categories "flashing or animated ads" and "popup ads" (especially mobile redirect ads) may be transacted through exchanges despite the publisher's best efforts. Google has made an API available through which publishers can determine a site's compliance with the Better Ads Standards, and publishers will be given 30 days to rectify noncompliance. Sites can be re-reviewed after the user experience has been improved. Over 40% of the sites that initially were non-compliant fixed their issues before the rollout of Chrome's ad filtering. Only 1.5% of the 100,000 sites that Google audited failed in the first place.  

All of these changes speak broadly to TripleLift's mission - effective, user centric publisher monetization, wherever users consume content. It has always been our belief that it was necessary to create a sustainable publisher monetization ecosystem. This is a strong move driving the web in a direction that we have always believed in. There is a chance that the initial standards promulgated by Chrome are not sufficient to address issues like tracking, slow loading times, or many of the formats that were allowed in the first release. That said, it is expected that these standards will evolve over time to find the right balance.